By Rob Stein and Aaron C. Davis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 3, 2009
More than half of the nation's colleges and universities tracking swine flu cases are reporting infected students, with more than 1,600 cases within the first weeks of classes, a medical group said Wednesday.
The American College Health Association, in the first of what will be weekly reports on swine flu activity, said 55 percent of 165 institutions surveyed counted a total of 1,640 cases as of the week of Aug. 22-28. So far, one student has been hospitalized and no deaths have been reported, the group said.
The 165 institutions represent more than 2 million students.
Unlike the seasonal flu, which tends to strike the elderly, the swine flu, also known as H1N1, more commonly affects children and young adults. The virus causes relatively mild illness in most of those infected, but because it is new, most people have no immunity against it. As a result, officials said many more people could get the flu this year.
The virus emerged in the spring and quickly moved to the United States and other countries. It continued to spread through the summer in the United States, but officials have been expecting an increase in cases as students return to school.
"Fortunately, it appears that at this early stage the illness remains relatively mild among college students," said James C. Turner, the health association's president and executive director of the Department of Student Health at the University of Virginia.
Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley (D) on Wednesday said it is residents' "patriotic duty" to get seasonal flu shots in the coming weeks, before a larger effort this fall to vaccinate children, pregnant women, health-care workers and others against the swine flu. Health officials are worried that the focus on H1N1 may cause too few people to be vaccinated against the seasonal flu, which could still pose a health hazard, especially for the elderly.
"You'll be doing your patriotic duty to get your seasonal flu shot this year," O'Malley said. For those who have never received one, he said, "by golly, this is a very good year to do it for the first time."
O'Malley's plea followed a closed-door meeting with his cabinet and leaders from state public safety and health-care agencies. The meeting came one day after those and other agencies were required to submit contingency plans for how to keep the state government working should thousands of transportation workers, police, hospital employees or others fall ill with H1N1.
John M. Colmers, secretary of health and mental hygiene, likened Maryland's part in the upcoming mass swine-flu vaccination campaign to a "military operation" and said much remains unknown about how the state will carry it out. Unlike seasonal flu shots, which are available now, swine flu vaccines will not be ready until at least mid-October, and then only in limited quantities.
"We're trying to match what we know about the supply of the vaccine and its particular formulation with the target populations and when we believe it will arrive," Colmers said. He stressed that the only thing the state knows for sure is that it will not initially have enough doses to vaccinate the roughly 2.9 million residents considered most at risk.